How to Become a Correctional Officer: Education and Career Roadmap

Research the requirements to become a correctional officer. Learn about the job description and duties and read the step-by-step process to start a career as an officer in a correctional facility.

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Do I Want to Be a Correctional Officer?

These officers are law enforcement professionals who oversee inmates in detainment facilities. They may guard and maintain prisoners within local, state and federal facilities, like jails or prisons, as well as in the courtroom and all transitory destinations in between. This is a potentially dangerous occupation due to confrontations and contagious disease; many of these professionals work overtime.

Job Requirements

Many enter the career with high school diplomas and work experience, though some positions require applicants to have bachelor's degrees or extensive experience. Optional certifications are available. The following table lists the basic requirements for becoming a corrections officer:

Common Requirements
Degree Level High school diploma to some college credits for employment with state and local agencies; bachelor's degree for employment with federal agencies*
Degree Field Any major, though a criminal justice degree may be beneficial*
Certification Voluntary certification is available through organizations like the American Correctional Association (ACA)*
Experience Training academy completion is required, which leads to on-the-job training; relevant military and/or work experience may be used to replace educational requirements*
Key Skills Heightened awareness and observation capabilities to monitor tense situations; reasoning, communication and negotiation skills for resolving conflicts and maintaining order; social perceptivity and an understanding of human behavior and reaction/motivation; composure when dealing with emotional situations**
Technical Skills Firearm use; self-defense; weapon wielding; prisoner disarming; tactical and strategic response*
Additional Requirements Strength for physically moving or restraining inmates*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*NET OnLine

Step 1: Complete an Academy Training Program

All corrections agencies require prospective correctional officers to complete an academy training program. These programs are offered at the local, state and federal levels as well as by private companies. Trainees learn about the policies and operations of their institutions, security/custody policies and corrections regulations. Individuals must be U.S. citizens with no felony convictions to qualify for employment, and many corrections agencies require candidates to be 18-21 years old and under a certain age, such as 37 for federal positions. Employment also typically entails passing drug screenings and physical exams.

Success Tips:

  • Consider undergraduate school. Although the minimum education for becoming a correctional officer is usually a high school diploma, the Federal Bureau of Prisons requires correctional officers in federal detention centers to hold bachelor's degrees or have at least three years of relevant full-time experience, such as in supervising, teaching or counseling. Some non-federal agencies also require correctional officers to have at least some undergraduate credits. No specific major is required, but correctional officers may benefit from coursework in criminal justice, criminology or social science.
  • Create a physical training regimen. Correctional officers are expected to be capable of handling and subduing prisoners when necessary. As such, physical strength is essential, and physical capability exams are often a part of the application process. A prospective officer can prepare for these exams and develop physical strength and discipline by creating and following an exercise plan.

Step 2: Complete On-the-Job Training

After completing academy training, correctional officers go on to complete hands-on training on the job. This training can last weeks or up to months at local and state facilities, whereas federal officers must complete 200 hours of training throughout their first year of employment. Trainees may learn about regulations, self-defense and firearms wielding. Federal corrections officers also obtain yearly in-service training.

Step 3: Earn Certification

Experienced correctional officers may choose to demonstrate law enforcement aptitude and increase advancement opportunities by earning professional certification. The ACA offers the Certified Corrections Officer (CCO) designation to candidates with high school diplomas or GEDs and one year of correctional officer experience (www.aca.org). To become certified, candidates must score at least 75% on a 200-question exam. Those who earn 90% receive Pass-with-Honors certificates. CCOs must renew certification by earning 40 continuing education credits every three years.

Step 4: Advance in the Occupation

With experience and proficiency, some correctional officers are given the privilege of bidding on special projects, such as correctional or health counseling jobs. Officers may be promoted to supervisory positions, like correctional sergeant, a position that involves overseeing officers and maintaining security in detainment facilities. Some officers advance to the position of warden. Correctional officers with college degrees may have more opportunities for advancement.

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